Hi folks. My name is Joe Borrelli and I'm here to talk to you about horror in Role Playing Games.
While RPGs have been solidly ensconced in the fantasy genre since its inception, horror role-playing showcases gaming at its finest. It's the most difficult genre to do; it requires a mix of atmosphere, cooperation, and a willingness to engage in the material. A single disruptive player can ruin the experience for everyone, yet if the game comes together, it can represent the absolute high point of collaborative storytelling experience. Bawdy tales of heroes and battles amuse when shared around a lusty campfire, but tales of terror whispered around dying embers thrill the soul.
I've been running RPGs for almost 20 years, both casually and in convention scenarios. Narrative games have been an important part of my development. They taught me how to tell stories, how to command an audience, how to perform, and how to think on my feet. C.R. Langille, my friend and classmate, asked me a few questions about my experiences running horror RPGs. I'm grateful to have an opportunity to advocate for them.
So, without further ado, the questions.
1) What horror RPG systems have you run, and which is your favorite? Why do you like that system so much?
I want to extend this question to include gaming universes, which are different from systems. I'll forgive an ineffective system if the story is engaging. I'm very fond of the World of Darkness, but the game's mechanics are very cumbersome.
I have run quite a few RPG systems in my time, but the ones I keep circling back to are Call of Cthulhu, World of Darkness, and the Sword & Sorcery edition of Ravenloft.
Call of Cthulhu is, to put it bluntly, the most elegantly designed system created for role-playing games. The system is simple to teach and utilize, while being comprehensive enough to cover practically any situation a PC can encounter.
I'm emphatically not a rules guy. There are people who like the dozens of tweaks and modifiers that more complex systems provide, but I find that systems like that turn games into small unit tactical combat games, with a bit of flavor text to separate the fights. I'm a storytelling guy. I like narrative, interaction, characters, mysteries, discoveries, imagination, and immersion. The less the rules interfere, the happier I am.
Call of Cthulhu lives up to my standards. Mythos games are intrinsically investigative; they're mysteries with a monster behind the parlor door. Some structure is required, and Cthulhu creates that structure without being invasive.
The other perk of the system is permanent vulnerability. Your character can become stronger, smarter, and more dangerous, but a sentry getting off a lucky shot can still take you out. Unlike other systems, which usually end up with the players becoming omnipotent superheroes, combat is always dangerous. Because of this, the game rewards smart thinking; you can't simply waddle in as a meat shield, soak up attacks, and mega-blast your opponents into red mist. Most of the things you face in Cthulhu can wipe you out without much effort, so the system preserves the vulnerability required for effective horror storytelling.
As the title suggests, Call of Cthulhu takes place in the null-cosmology of famed horror writer H.P. Lovecraft. You play as investigators who have unfortunately discovered the true nature of the universe and fight an ineffective battle to keep the darkness at bay a little longer. The pop nihilism of the game is an intriguing antithesis of most RPGs, which work as power fantasies, and make the tiny victories your players win hold that much more meaning. In addition, I'm certain that the Cthulhu RPG has been the most effective at introducing new readers to Lovecraft's work since August Derleth.
After Call of Cthulhu, my favorite horror games are the combined World of Darkness in general and Vampire: the Masquerade in particular.
My first attempt to get into RPGs were met with dismal failure. I was given an Advanced Dungeons and Dragons starter set as a child and couldn't make heads or tails of it. I'm not a fantasy fan and trying to learn the game on my own was horrible. It was like trying to read a math textbook for fun. I made up my own game, played it for a while, looted the box for nifty figures, and stuffed it in a closet.
Fast forward to me at fifteen. I'd gone from metal to punk to goth, and some of my friends were talking about a game where you went to public parks and pretended to be vampires. Friggin' vampires, man!
My allowance came from weekend shifts working at my Dad's pawn shop. A day's worth of sweeping floors and talking to junkies got me the money for the LARP rules. I picked them up, bypassed the rules section, and read the game's mythology section.
The hook of the game is that vampires existed in the world, but they kept themselves secret to keep safe from an unsuspecting humanity. They loved, they lusted, they mourned, they made war. And the different vampire bloodlines fit every type of vampire I'd ever seen in movies or read in books, from brutes to rulers to moody artists.
What worked so well with Vampire was how effectively it built off of all the vampire canon that came before it. You went to the game already knowing something about the world from your exposure to horror media, which made the game universe easy to connect to.
I've run Vampire for decades now and I can authoritatively say that the system has a lot of problems. There's a very narrow chance that your character can fail at anything they attempt to do, but there are too many gradients of success. Combat is cumbersome, often requiring multiple rolls with handfuls of dice. Characters can quickly become overpowered as they start stacking up abilities. Finally, the core mechanic for making your character more powerful requires committing the most heinous crime in vampire society.
All White Wolf games have a massive disconnect between the ideal game they want you to run and the way people actually play it. The game titles itself as "A Storytelling Game of Personal Horror", but to create the pathos required to run the game the way the system wants you to play it would require tremendous one-on-one time between each player and the GM.
There's also the sturm und drang angsty Grand Guignol melancholy that often comes off as laughable. The writers of Vampire: the Masquerade are often guilty of trying too hard to hit the pathos button. My favorite example comes from one of the core rule books; the party is on the tail of a recently-turned Catholic priest. They find him in his cathedral over the bodies of some drained altar boys (I know, I know, shut up.) He begs the players to kill him, but that would be wroooong. Oh that poor priest! What would you do?
So that kind of corny shit seems more laughable the farther away I get from it, and I can only imagine the sad boys and sad girls that wrote the material in the first place, but there's no question that they captured the zeitgeist of the 90s goth aesthetic in the game. The world is compelling, the stories stick with you, and I can still meet up with veteran White Wolf players and discuss the World of Darkness for hours on end.
My style of running Vampire: the Masquerade was to treat it like a supernatural mafia story. Vampire life is fundamentally illegal, there are great consequences for discovery, and the factions are all vying for power. It's fertile ground for stories about subterfuge, manipulation, power dynamics, and predatory instinct.
As I mentioned earlier, I'm not much of a fantasy fan. I lack the imagination.
Science fiction and fantasy are as much about the setting as they are about the story. You have to know the rules, the lingo, the factions, and all the other minutia required to get into the narrative. Horror is often set in our world, with intrusions. I can understand it, I don't have to memorize tons of tedious world-building information.
One of the only fantasy settings that ever pulled me in was Ravenloft, one of the campaign settings for Dungeons and Dragons. In particular, the setting as written by Sword & Sorcery, White Wolf's fantasy line.
The gist of Ravenloft is that it's a horror-tinged fantasy setting, set in an aesthetic that recalls classic Universal and Hammer gothic horror films. A mysterious force known as the Dark Powers, usually represented as a relentless, implacable fog, has created a hellscape of interlocking fiefdoms. The rulers of each fiefdom is under some unresolvable curse, based off the sins in their lives. For example, the Dracula-like vampire Strahd Von Zarovich was cursed for the crime of killing his brother in order to seduce his brother's bride. The bride threw herself off the castle parapets and Strahd was cursed with immortality. Once a generation the bride is reborn somewhere in the kingdom and Strahd tries to possess her, only to have her taken from him.
Ravenloft subverted a lot of the things that drove me nuts about Dungeons and Dragons. Gods are coldly distant, spells that impart knowledge are ineffective, and moral questions can no longer be determined by alignment spells. More than any other setting in D&D, your characters are fully in charge of their own fate.
It's also an intensely personal game. Every major villain has been doomed by their own actions, and it's very easy for the players to condemn themselves. White Wolf's creative team seemed to have stripped away the bathos of their more melodramatic worlds and created a game where characters are fully empowered to damn themselves. Even if you and your players don't want to play an intricate story about a fall from grace, stomping through graveyards and staking vampires is always good for a laugh.
I'm currently running a werewolf campaign in the wolf-haunted land of Kartakass. The players have taken refuge in a small town with odd rituals of hospitality, the wolves are creeping the streets at night, and a great culling has drawn the hunters into the fog-shrouded wolves. I get to bust out my creaky Eastern European accent, describe strange rituals, and game with the lights off. It makes up for the times that the clunky rules interrupt, the battle map comes out, and everyone has to roll for initiative.
2) It can be difficult to get players in the right frame of mind for playing a horror RPG, how do you set the tone/mood?
First off, most of the things gamers think of as horror isn't actually horror.
Having a monster in a game doesn't actually mean that the game is horror. Buffy the Vampire Slayer had all kinds of traditional horror monsters, but was almost never actually scary. It was an action show, with vampires taking the place of gangsters, ninjas, or whatever other goons action stars typically beat up. Horror is primarily about mood, not violence.
To that end, the most important rule to running horror RPGs is don't run games for players who don't care for atmospheric gaming.
Most gamers are socialized in playful gaming. There's lots of shit talking, clowning around, Monty Python references, and musical interludes. While that's fine in casual games, any of these things can instantly shut down the ambiance required for horror gaming to work.
Pretend you're around a campfire, telling a story about a maniac that stalked the woods in the years prior to your visit. The fire is dimming, your voice drops to a low menacing growl, and your audience leans forward, getting into it. Suddenly, one guy's cell phone rings some ridiculous ringtone. Everyone laughs, they tease each other, and the spell is broken. You've lost them, and you have to work twice as hard to get them back.
Now imagine you're in a place with a lot more distractions, with an audience acclimated to interrupting each other. And there's always one player who just can't help themselves.
So, lesson one, some people should be excluded from your group.
You don't have to be tyrannical about it. Sit down with your group, explain to them that you're trying to create an atmosphere of horror, and it requires them to participate in it by not undermining the mood. That means minimal jokes and crosstalk, with an eye toward preserving the experience for everyone else. Doing this lays out the expectations for the game, and I've found that players rise to those expectations accordingly.
Once you've earned their trust and support, you've got to abide by rule number two: you cannot be a shitty GM.
That means you have to know the material, you have to be evocative without being ponderous, you can't steamroll the players with your plot, and you have to speak with confidence and authority. Horror GMing, more than any other type of gaming, is all about the cult of personality. You are the storyteller. Win them over and keep them on your side.
This is where the performative aspect of game mastering kicks in. You have to be an actor. In general, I go broad with the NPC performances (Ravenloft is particularly good at this, where every NPC is either "peasant" or "peasant who's up to something") and I go very quiet doing descriptions of scary scenes. Voice modulation is key: scenes of violence get described with a slowly growing hysteria, ominous or supernatural sections get described very slowly in a distant voice, and I seldom directly engage with any player unless they ask for my attention. The goal is to present my descriptions in a way where the tone of my voice does half the work for me.
As far as game construction goes, you have to use a lighter touch for horror gaming. Intensely graphic descriptions of violence comes off as more farcical than scary. A zillion severed heads turns your game into a heavy metal album cover. The gentle creaking of a hanged man's rope, heard through the echoes of an abandoned house, is infinitely more effective. The game should be less focused on combat and more focused on mystery. Mystery and horror are siblings, and combat has a tendency to steamroll over atmosphere with game mechanics. Finally, all your scenes should be short in duration, so that nothing has a chance to go stale. A permanent sense of dread and disquiet should be a part of every scene, so your big payoff scenes have more impact.
Rule number three is, of course, atmosphere.
You can't do horror gaming in the day. You can't do horror gaming in well-lit place. You can't do horror gaming in a place where non-players traipse through and constantly interrupt.
I'm lucky. I play my Ravenloft campaign in my former office. It's big and empty, with quiet conference rooms. There's a dim light we drag over to the table, and the players carry tiny utility flashlights in case they need to look at their character sheets.
The other perk is the pitch-black meeting rooms. I like pulling individual players inside, turning off all the lights, and imparting particularly creepy information to them in the dark. This technique works better on some players than others, but the ones that get really creeped out brings that unease back to the table. Never allow these interlude to last more than a minute, though. Part of keeping their attention is never allowing your players to lay idle for too long. The old rule about boredom being a GM's primary opponent is especially true in horror gaming.
One of my favorite tricks as a GM is that I wear a bone-white mask that I picked up from NYC's Sleep No More show when I'm running the most tense scenes. The white mask stands in contrast to the darkness of the room, and it dehumanizes me enough to give my words a little extra oomph.
Finally, ambient sound helps. I'm a big fan of the website Tabletop Audio, where a Hollywood sound engineer created tons of background music. Some of his tunes, especially "Catacombs", have an eerie Eraserhead vibe to them. For bigger setpieces, the first few songs to the Bram Stoker's Dracula score work equally well.
3) Do you have any personal experiences that you'd like to share from running a horror themed RPG?
Most of my style and technique works for me, so I can't say I have a lot of stand-out memories. The most rewarding thing for me is when my players totally immerse themselves in the story and engage with it on their own terms. Setting the mood takes a lot of effort, but my players speak highly of the game afterward.
My most effective scene is from one of my Call of Cthulhu convention game. The players are investigating an artist who drowned his daughter in the bathtub and hung himself after nightmarish visions of Cthulhu drove him to madness. Visions of the daughter's death haunt the players and eventually they find themselves at his house.
After finding the bathtub where the drowning happens and witnessing thrashing water and sounds of violence, I usually slam a book on the table to simulate the bathroom slamming shut in their face. Once the players recover from the jump scare, I tell them that they hear the sound of a creaking rope coming from the bedroom at the rear of the house. The bathroom scare has them on edge and they know what's waiting for them, so they often proceed cautiously.
By the time they see the ghost, I carefully describe the horror of the scene. Before he disappears, the players hear "I still dream."
The idea that death has given the man no escape sends a chill down my player's spine. It's the bit I've been complimented about the most.
4) What are some tricks or tips for people who may be running their first horror RPG?
I feel like I answered the question at length in the other section, but I've just described the stuff that works for me.
My tricks are my own, and I feel like they're very effective for my style. Ultimately they're a static solution to a dynamic problem. You have to develop your own techniques that fit your own play group.
Ultimately, you're trying to create the performative version of a Haunt. The golden rule is atmosphere, atmosphere, atmosphere. You want to use whatever trick in the book to isolate the players, make them feel vulnerable, and make them wary to open the next door.
Dungeons are the most effective setting for fear, but they're seldom used that way. It's scary to crawl into some forgotten crypt full of monsters and curses. The only thing missing is the atmosphere. Mine every scene for horror, keep the tension high, and find your own way to freak out your players.
As I was reviewing this questionnaire, I realized that I was missing the most important part of horror GMing, the one aspect that will kill your game if it's not fulfilled:
You have to commit fully to scaring the crap out of your players. They are playing to be afraid. If you break that tension, crack a joke, or defuse the scene in any way, you're betraying that trust.
I remember an interview Anna Faris once gave where she said the best advice that Keenan Ivory Wayans ever gave her was that there is no vanity in comedy. You have to commit fully, even if it means being broad and buffoonish. I believe that horror is often the inversion of comedy, which is why the two work so well together. The more you commit to the performance, the more you will impress your players.
Well, I think I've laid out everything I know about running horror RPGs. I hope this has been helpful to people. I've certainly enjoyed writing it, especially in light of my current Ravenloft campaign.
I've covered a lot of this stuff in my blog (creaturecast.blogspot.com), specifically in my How To Run A Horror RPG post (http://creaturecast.blogspot.com/2013/04/how-to-run-horror-role-playing-scenario.html). In addition, I discuss gaming topics at length on my podcast (creaturecast.net), including White Wolf games (http://www.creaturecast.net/white-wolf-role-playing-games/) Vampire: the Masquerade (http://www.creaturecast.net/vampire-the-masquerade/) and the works of H.P. Lovecraft (http://www.creaturecast.net/h-p-lovecraft-and-the-cthulhu-mythos/).
Thanks to C.R. for this opportunity. Read his stuff, it's awesome.
Enjoy your games, everyone.